Listen to this article

Today’s column features two new well-received picture book biographies written by Illinois authors with Champaign-Urbana connections.

“Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” (2020, Abrams Books for Young Readers, written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Chicago-based Cozbi A. Cabrera, ages 5-10), examines the life of the Chicago poet, who grew up in a family with little money but a bookcase filled with poems.

“Each night, her father read fine poetry aloud,/passionate and proud./Nothing sounded sweeter to Gwendolyn/than Father’s deep voice/reciting the rhythmic words,” the lyrical text reads.

Gwendolyn memorized the poems and began writing her own, including one sitting on her back porch looking at the sky, “with all those beautiful changing clouds/and just to dream about the future,/which was going to be ecstatically exquisite,/like those clouds.”

Cabrera’s rich, expressive watercolors bring the bright pink clouds to life and follow Gwendolyn as she sets her words free, submitting her poems to magazines, and lives through the Great Depression, “hungry for food, yet more hungry for words.” From college to marriage to motherhood, Gwendolyn wrote about her South Side Chicago neighborhood, Bronzeville, “where businesses boomed on 47th Street,/where hardworking families didn’t have enough to eat,/where people jumped and jived to a new, jazzy beat.” These poems became Gwendolyn’s first published book, then another. “Gwendolyn’s words d r i f t e d into the world/like bright, brilliant clouds./Her poems helped people better understand others./They encouraged people to take a closer look at themselves./They changed the way some people thought and acted.”

Complete with backmatter, this book is a well-researched, well-written tribute to Brooks. Slade is grateful to the UIUC Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which houses the Gwendolyn Brooks Papers, and allowed her to review Gwendolyn Brooks’s handwritten poetry journals. See more about Slade’s research process here, and here

Amy Alznauer, author of the book “The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan” (2020, Candlewick Press, illustrated by Daniel Miyares, ages 5-10), also has a Champaign-Urbana connection: the math Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois and an adviser, along with her father, who edited the recently-published volumes of Ramanujan’s lost notebooks.

Being there as her father discovered the lost notebooks inspired young Alznauer’s interest in this magical story. With Miyares’s vibrant, flowing paintings, we’re transported to a small village in South India where baby Ramanujan’s mother touches his tongue and tells him of his grandmother’s dream, in which a goddess whispers, “someday she would write the thoughts of God on your tongue.”

We follow Ramanujan as he grows, asking his grandfather, “What is small?”, then looking up at the big blue space between clouds, “And what is big?”

Bored in school, he spends his time thinking about numbers. If he chops a mango in half, then again and again, it would go on endlessly, “to an infinity I could never ever reach.” The poetic text continues, “He loved this idea, small and big, each inside the other. If he could crack the number 1 open and find infinity, what secrets would he discover inside other numbers? It felt like he was setting out on a grand chase.”

Ramanujan scratches numbers in the sand, then on his slate, erasing with his elbow, ideas flowing wildly as “numbers came whispering in dreams.” He grows older, and his questions grow bigger. He begins writing down his ideas in a notebook. Watching him, his mother wonders, “Are these the thoughts Namagiri placed on his tongue?”

Finally, after flunking out of college, working as a clerk and continuing his work, he realizes he needs to share his ideas and sends a letter by steamer to Cambridge University, a great mathematical center. After many letters, he receives a response, loving his “outlandish, magnificent ideas” and inviting him to come to England. Should he go? “... a whisper seemed to come in a dream: “Speak the thoughts on your tongue.”

This book, brimming with artistry and passion, will bring numbers, India and this important man to life for readers. To hear Alznauer discuss how she came to write the book, see

Alice B. McGinty ( is the award-winning author of almost 50 books for children. She just launched a new website,